Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Fire Is Spreading: Popular Music and Rebellion

The death of Chris Cornell this past week may not have been the kind of national front-page news that resulted when Bowie or Prince passed, but for students of rock history and enduring fans of one of the greatest expressions of rebellion in modern music, it was another acutely unsettling epilogue to a story that had largely been assumed finished.

Grunge was one of the most improbable musical forms ever to have reached mass recognition and popularity.  Popular music was about romantic relationships, and if it veered into dark territory, it was generally about the end of a love affair.  Grunge was about rage and dejection in nearly everything except love, and a blood-curdling cry of a generation's youth that their frustrations would be heard.  It was at once apolitical, in that songs rarely aimed to bolster specific partisan causes by name, and vastly political, in the sense that this searing screaming broadly encompassed the anger of the youth across party lines and across a range of ideologies.  There was something populist in the way scruffy kids largely from a city people hadn't paid much attention to could grab the microphone and let the whole nation know they had real concerns, too.

The biggest five grunge bands were Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, and Stone Temple Pilots.  Of those five, the lead singers for four of them have now died of suicide or a drug overdose.

While there has been a recent surge in popular music addressing issues of race, ethnicity, and identity issues -- an expression of political unrest that will surely have a prominent chapter in musical history -- there is nothing akin to grunge.  While many millennials dance the nights away to The Chainsmokers and Kygo, the lack of a broad-based populist wail inflaming the imaginations of a new generation may stand in counterpoint to the political activism that is indeed happening by day.  Yet there is more escapism than confrontation.

Bob Mould, one of the key forefathers and innovators that helped create grunge and alternative rock, once remarked in an interview about his parents' generation's musical revolution, "They sat in the park and sang with folk guitars.  We take electric guitars and blast the ---- out of them over and over again until the message sinks in...  We're not going to be passive.  We'll fight back our own way."

Will there be another revolution?  Perhaps it has not happened yet, but it still may.

Cornell's darkness might just be too much for another generation to swim into:

"Pale in the flare-light
The scared light cracks and disappears
And leads the scorched ones here
And everywhere no one cares
The fire is spreading
And no one wants to speak about it"


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